In the western world, and much of Asia, peanut butter is pretty ubiquitous stuff. As a favorite children’s sandwich filler, and a quick and simple snack spread, it’s easy to see why spreadable peanut rose to popularity. It has a particular combination of sweet and savory flavor which makes it one of those love-it or hate-it things. Personally I love it, but them I’m also one of those people who enjoyed dipping salted pretzels in chocolate. I can understand why to some people the peanut should be left just as it is.
That depends on the brand, but the essential recipe is surprisingly simple: peanuts. Peanuts and vegetable oil being the most common variant. There is no butter involved at all, and almost all varieties of PB are in fact vegan. All it takes to make the spread is to grind up some dry roasted peanuts into a paste, and for a more spreadable version you add some oil.
Of course, commercial brands contain more than that. Preservatives will almost certainly be involved, and so will copious quantities of sugar and salt. The differences in taste between brands will be down to sugar and salt proportions, making either a more sweet or more savory form of the paste. Interestingly, there seem to be cultural variations in the preferred taste balance, with American’s seeming to like their PB sweeter, Brits saltier, and Aussies somewhere in the middle (or at least that is what my sampling has lead me to believe).
The next form of variation in PB is the crunchiness level. From perfectly smooth, to positively rocky, how much the nuts have been blended down makes a big difference. Personally, I’m all about chunky, crunchy, chewable textures. But I can also see the merits of a smooth peanut paste which doesn’t get stuck in your teeth. But if you suffer from Arachibutyrophobia – the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth – the dangers are probably about equal with any sized peanut chunks.
Peanut butter has quite an interesting history. It was probably first made by Aztecs, who had abundant crops of peanuts and most likely wanted something different to do with them. Their peanut butter was the purest kind; just roasted and ground up nuts. It therefore wouldn’t have been very sweet, nor highly spreadable.
In America (the country we probably associate most with PB), the first peanut butter making machine was patented in the 19th century. One of the uses it was designed for was providing a protein-rich food for the toothless elderly. Since it is indeed high in proteins, fats, and energy, this was probably a good idea.
If reading about peanut butter is giving you cravings, you can very easily make your own – just get some peanuts, and some vegetable oil, and use a food processor to blend into a paste. Then you can add just as much sugar as you like, and experiment with other flavorings.
Here are some suggestions:
PB & Sesame. Just like normal peanut butter, but with added tahini (sesame seed paste). Either buy tahini or sesame seeds, and blend into your PB mix. This makes for a richer flavor, with some earthy sesame notes.
PB & Banana. I think peanut butter and bananas are a wonderful combination. You can make a naturally sweet PB spread if you add ripe bananas to the mix, and because they are soft and smooth they supplement the need for oil. Consume soon after making though.
Other Nut Butters. peanuts are mostly used because they are a cheap, and oil-rich nut. But you can make spread out of just about any nut you fancy. For dryer nuts you will simply need to add more oil, but really any should work. For example:
- Cashew Butter: this is a naturally sweeter, and very creamy variant.
- Brazil Butter: super rich, super nutty, and super filling.
- Hazelnut Butter: very strong flavor, and can be bitter so may require extra sweetening, but completely fabulous when well made.
If you are health conscious, you may wish to supplement the vegetable oil with something else. Coconut oil is a good idea, although since it is solid at room temperature it will produce a harder, thicker paste which isn’t that spreadable. Health food shops will have lots of oil choices, so you can experiment with tastes. If you like your PB sweet, agave nectar (a honey-like liquid made from cacti) works very well.
Peanut butter is also an ingredient, and not just a finished food in itself, for many dishes. Peanut curry is made with peanut butter, coconut milk, and spices. There are all kinds of peanut-butter based dipping sauces, and marinades. For cooking purposes, the simplest form of PB is probably best, and of course cheapest.
Whether you are a lover or hater of PB, it is unlikely you’ve tried it in all its versatile glory. It has more to offer than just an addition to bread. Songs have been sung about it, patent battles fought, and it has spread all over the globe. (And with that terrible pun, I shall end my rhapsodizing)